10 Reasons to Choose Trains over Planes

January 15, 2016

This week, I cashed in 15,000 of my Amtrak Guest Rewards points and got myself a roomette from Atlanta to Philadelphia. Though this was simply an attempt to meet up with friends in the northeast, I’m glad I had a chance to experience America’s train system; Japan’s may have the speed and efficiency, and Thailand’s may be famous for freezing its passengers, but ours has a lot going for it.

A photo posted by Turner Wright (@onceatraveler) on

Safety

Though Amtrak has had its share of disasters, it can’t compete with one simple fact over airlines: trains stay on the ground. Anyone with a fear of flying and unwilling to drive for several days can find comfort in booking a roomette or bedroom, closing the door, and settling in for an evening of white noise, i.e. the rattling of the cars over the tracks.

Comfort

Ok, if you opt for a regular seat or even one in business class for a long trip, there’s not going to be a big difference between your legs getting cramped on a train vs. plane. But, trust your travel expert: pay for a sleeper car and stretch out at night. The roomettes are equipped with an outlet, sink, toilet, mirror, luggage storage, towels, etc. Despite what I’d heard about the lack of facilities on board, there are showers in the sleeper cars; even a three-day journey won’t leave you stinking.

A photo posted by Turner Wright (@onceatraveler) on

Food

Hand in hand with the amenities is the food. Train food beats plane food, no question. Though the prices are similar, those in sleeper cars have all meals and drinks included – but not alcohol. Instead of being handed a gelatinous mix of chicken and canned veggies in your cramped seat, Amtrak passengers are invited to the dining car, where they are seated and presented courses of meals, the way humanity intended.

A photo posted by Turner Wright (@onceatraveler) on

People

Every traveler questions whether the area he visits is simply full of friendly people, or he tends to elicit more positive reactions due to his traveling demeanor: smiling at people on the street, staring at skyscrapers and unusual buildings, enjoying food more than someone inhaling his lunch. Though the same is certainly true on a long distance train, there are simply more opportunities to talk to people when you’re both in close quarters… but not too close, as we see on airplanes.

A former train engineer from Boston joined me for breakfast and lunch and taught me a little about the history of these cars. Apparently, Amtrak has kept the original stainless steel shells of some from 1949. Eventually we got on the topic of trains across the globe, and I mentioned riding from Auckland to Wellington in New Zealand. Even this man of 60+ years was impressed: “It’s better than a mortgage.” Maybe it is…

History

Despite what you may think of America’s rail system, and how pitiful it is in comparison to those in other countries, there’s no denying you feel connected to the past when riding the rails across the countryside. Next to spending several months at sea, train travel is our oldest form of long distance travel that has endured, and it’s refreshing to reestablish bonds with that part of our history.

Less Stressful

I didn’t have to step through two levels of security, nor have my bags secured. In fact, surprisingly, the car attendant didn’t even ask for my ID or ticket, just confirmed my name on her list before boarding me in Atlanta. I’ve mentioned the perks of reserving a sleeper car, but even these are above and beyond what we’d see in first class on international flights… well, maybe not on Etihad… There’s less of a stigma around standing up and exploring the cars, stretching out, and joining other passengers for a game of cards.

Wifi

Some trains, especially the northeastern commuter lines, do have reliable wifi on board. However, Amtrak is woefully behind the times for their long distance trains. I’m surprised, but I actually appreciated the lack of distractions. Reading and writing for me, and there’s always data on my phone if I’m in a bind.

Amtrak Guest Rewards

The Amtrak Guest Rewards Mastercard offers 20,000 points for $1000 in purchases within the first three months of account opening. Not only is that easy to meet, but given that the return is about 50% – i.e. about $500 for a roomette than can be purchased with 20k points – this deal is amazing.

Cost

Let’s look at the numbers from Atlanta to Philadelphia:

Air Travel
Price: $60-80 or 12,500 points
Travel time: 2 hours
Meals: Not included
Perks: Resisting the urge to watch Big Hero 6 again

Greyhound
Price: $50
Travel time: 20 hours
Meals: HAHAHAHAHA… oh, you were serious?
Perks: Listening to your seatmate talk about that dead body he poked

Amtrak
Price: $350-400 or 15,000 points for roomette
Travel time: 16 hours
Meals: Dinner, breakfast, and lunch ($60+ value on their menus)
Perks: Overnight accommodation

So while a train ticket might cost you six times the cheapest airline, when we take off $60 for food and $80 for accommodation, it’s only about a $200 ticket for 16 hours of travel.

Greyhound Sucks

Be honest: by now you may be willing to hop on a train halfway across the country before you step on a Greyhound for the same distance. Megabus and Bolt Bus are decent for short hops. Greyhound’s tendency to run late (and deal with traffic) makes it far slower than Amtrak and far, far less favorable.

All in all, the train provides comfort, reliability, and greater possibilities for socializing.

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